It’s tough out there for a moderate Republican, says U.S Rep. Judy Biggert of Illinois, a long-time member of the House Education and the Workforce Committee.
Biggert, who is in a very tight race, is one of a handful of Republicans to get a stamp of approval—and campaign cash—from the National Education Association, a 3-million-member union. She says that as both political parties have gotten more polarized, it’s getting harder and harder to work across the aisle on K-12 and other issues.
Over the past several years, the parties have “lost a lot of moderates, a lot of my friends,” Biggert told me at a reception thrown during the Republican National Convention by the NEA and a bunch of other unions for labor-friendly House GOP lawmakers. (Seven GOP hopefuls showed up, including Biggert, Pete Sessions of Texas, Sean Duffy of Wisconsin, Patrick Meehan of Pennsylvania, Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania, Michael Grimm of New York, and Tim Griffin of Arkansas. Former Gov. Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, a Senate candidate, also came by.)
Biggert was one of a small number of House education committee members who has fought vehemently against attempts to create a federal voucher program. And she’s with the NEA on other issues too. Earlier this year, she introduced (then withdrew) an amendment the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that would have scrapped mandatory teacher evaluation. (She was also floated as a dark-horse potential education secretary for GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Would he really pick someone who’s anti-voucher?)
Biggert’s opponent, Democrat Bill Foster, a former congressman, also has a high rating from the NEA. The endorsement was “a tough decision,” admits Cinda Klickna, the president of the 131,000 Illinois Education Association. The union went with Biggert because she has a proven track record of working across the aisle on issues like vouchers, Klickma said.
The House education committee—and Congress—have a huge cadre of freshman, which has changed the dynamics of the committee and the House, Biggert said.
“They’re really smart people, they care about this country,” she said. “But a lot of them haven’t had an experience of being [in Congress.] ... They have to realize that in order to govern we have to spend some money. We need smaller, more efficient government, but they don’t understand yet that you get there by working together. ... I think I need [to start] a ‘Negotiating 101' caucus.”
Biggert doesn’t always buck her party. She voted in favor of the budget proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan, the newly minted vice presidential nominee. It would cut domestic discretionary spending by about 20 percent and could have big implications for education.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie may have slammed the National Education Association in his rousing speech to the delegates Tuesday night. But Biggert is happy to have the union’s endorsement. “My opponent was mad,” she said.
The NEA has a small presence here in Tampa, but will be throwing a bigger reception at the Democratic National Convention next week in Charlotte, N.C., with the American Federation of Teachers. Randi Weingarten and Dennis Van Roekel, the presidents of the AFT and the NEA, respectively, who both skipped Tampa, will be there.